Faery Charms- Magical Objects

Hag-stone by Hermitchild on Deviant Art

A study of the folklore records reveals that a range of objects, many of them extremely ordinary, have been found to be efficacious as charms that ward off or repel fairy harm.  They fall into several broad categories, although most of them are natural materials.

Minerals

A number of commonly occurring rocks and such like substances seem to dispel the fairy presence.  Iron is by far the most famous of these, being effective in any shape- whether a knife, a horse shoe, a pin or needle, pairs of tongs or the bolt of a door, but other less well-known (yet equally potent) materials include:

  • A hot coal thrown in a vat of brewing ale, which will prevent the fairies spoiling it. Likewise, live (that is burning) coals carried by travellers will prevent them being misled or abducted during their journey;
  • Amber beads sewn into a child’s clothes will prevent its abduction;
  • Salt will certainly drive off the fairies, scattered around or put into food stuffs that you don’t want stolen (I’ve discussed the power of salt separately);
  • In the Highlands, calves’ ears were smeared with tar just before May Day to protect them against theft;
  • The last, rather well known, natural object in this category is the so called adder stone, a naturally holed stone that could be worn around the neck to protect an individual or might be hung over a byre or stable to safeguard the livestock. When not in use, the stones were often kept safe in iron boxes which stopped the fairies trying to interfere with them. The antiquarian Edward Lhuyd, visiting Scotland in 1699, recorded that these ‘self-bored’ stones were also known as snake buttons, cock-knee stones, toad stones, snail stones and mole stones.
‘Elder at Walberswick’ by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1915

Plants

It is pretty well known that sprigs of rowan repels faeries; other plants equally repulsive to the faes are:

  • Fresh nettles, which, if laid on a milk churn will stop them hindering the churning (according to Manx belief).  In this connection, see Guilpin’s play Skialaetheia (1598) in which a character says “I applaud myself, for nettle stinging thus this fayery elfe”;
  • Vervane and dill can dispel evil influences, as can milkwort and mugwort.  Other handy herbs are mistletoe, nightshade, yarrow, groundsel, rue and the sap of ash trees. Burnt bindweed would safeguard a baby in a cradle, as would four leaved clover;
  • In Wales, meanwhile, it was said that a four leaved clover (combined, apparently, with nine grains of wheat) helped you to see the fairies- which would certainly enable you to avoid them if need be;
  • On the Hebrides, St John’s Wort and pearl wort both granted a general protection to cattle and people;
  • Sugar water, especially if it was served from a silver spoon or cup (or at least, from a receptacle containing a silver coin) would help ensure that a mother and her new born baby were safe from unwelcome faery attention. Even humble tea apparently drove fairies away in one Welsh case;
  • On Skye, oat cakes were said to have a protective effect.  Quite whether this derives from the oats themselves or from the fact that they have been processed by baking and very possibly salted is less certain;
  • In county Durham, an elder branch was said to guard against witches and fairies. On the Isle of Man the fairies were said to dwell in elder trees, but elder springs could also be carried to ward off the faes- and even to strike them;
  • Also on Man, a willow cross would protect against bugganes and fynoderees, but how much efficacy derived from the wood and how much from the religious significance of the shape, I can’t tell (see later for religious items).
The Crosh Bollan & Thor’s Hammer

Animal Products

I’ve described the effects of stale urine before, but an odd variety of animal parts and by-products could prove revolting to fairies- some understandable, some more surprising:

  • Drawing blood was believed to drive off the fairies on Orkney and Shetland;
  • On the Isle of Man, two special animal bones were found to have powerful effect.  These were the crosh bollan, which is the upper part of the palate of the wrass fish, and the so-called Thor’s Hammer, which is in fact from a sheep’s mouth and prevents fairy leading. Manx fishermen would carry the crosh bollan for protection at sea;
  • Burning leather repelled fairies from houses (see next section) as did the presence of a black cockerel;
  • Near Stirling, in central Scotland, it was recorded in 1795 that new born calves would be forced to eat a little dung as this would prevent both witches and elves harming or stealing them.

Cloth Items

It’s quite well-known that red threads are effective against fairies, for example tied around a child’s throat to protect them from taking or woven into the hair of a cow’s tail to prevent the fairies stealing its milk.  If you wanted to double your protection, securing a spring of rowan to someone or something with a red thread was recommended.

A burning rag carried round a woman in childbirth three times would stop the fairies taking her and her new born baby, it was said on Orkney and Shetland. It’s also reported that, when the trows smelled the smoke from the rag, they would express their displeasure in a rhyme: “Wig wag, jig jag,/ Ill healt so weel/ Thu wes sained/ Wi’ a linen rag.” To be fair, though, the smell of the smouldering material was probably the really effective part of this ceremony- for comparison, burning peats were also carried around farms on Shetland at Yule to ward off the trows. The combination of the smoke plus the flame (recall the lit coals earlier) appear to have been what discouraged the trows.

Wells & Well Water

As I have described previously, faery kind have an ambivalent relationship to wells, sometimes inhabiting them, sometimes avoiding them, sometimes giving their waters healing properties. In Wales, wells would be protected from the fairies by circling them with stones painted white; however the water from some springs was reputed to keep the fairies at bay- for example, St Leonards Well at Sheep’s Tor on Dartmoor.

Religious items

Linked to the possibly erroneous belief that fairies are fallen angels or emissaries of the devil and, as such, innately antithetical to all aspects of Christian religion, items such as bibles, psalm and prayer books were constantly regarded as sure remedies against fairy threat.  Even a few pages torn from a holy book could work, it was said in Scotland. It was found that an open bible could be especially potent, if carried around the person or place to be blessed and protected. On Shetland, plaiting crosses out of straws or the livestock’s tail hairs was a further precaution undertaken.

As will be seen, a variety of items carried with you can provide excellent protection against fairy interference and abduction. Properly equipped, you should not need to fear being pixie-led or being taken. Luckily, too, although some of these items are quite rare, many are readily available to all.

Margaret Thompson- tile artist (and other pottery pixies)

Do You Believe? - WMODA | Wiener Museum
Fairies at a Christening

Back in October, we were out of lockdown long enough for a short holiday, which took us up to the West Midlands. We stayed near Ironbridge and visited the Jackfield tile museum there. Of all the early industrial sites amongst the complex of museums in the Ironbridge Gorge area, Jackfield is my favourite simply because it’s the most attractive- especially the reconstructed pubs and shops which were entirely tiled in Victorian and Edwardian times.

A new exhibit was the mural by Margaret Thompson shown above. It was very common in the early decades of the twentieth century to decorate children’s wards in hospitals with large, colourful tile pictures- bright, cheerful and very easily kept clean. Often they were themed on nursery rhymes and fairy tales; this design derives more from the artist’s imagination alone- at the same time, it is fairly typical of faery designs of its time.

Margaret E. Thompson trained in applied design at Goldsmith’s Art Institute in the late 1890s and became an artist and designer working in the Art Nouveau style. Her background was that of an artist rather than a commercial designer, but she was quickly recruited by Doulton’s pottery at Lambeth, London.

Thompson’s specialisms were faience murals and vases with fairy tale motifs. Her initial output for Doulton comprised unique vases with designs exhibiting many similarities to those of Arthur Rackham and Mabel Lucy Attwell (see below). In due course she moved on to work on ceramic tiles for children’s wards in hospitals across the world, for example in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UCL Hospital, Bloomsbury, London and St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Other examples of her faery themed work are illustrated below; a number of Thompson’s works are held in the Victoria and Albert museum collection- most date from the period 1900-1905.

Mabel Lucie Attwell

Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964) is perhaps one of the best known and popular artists of the inter-war period. In part this was due to her very keen business sense; in part because she diversified across a range of products. She is best remembered for her book illustrations and other graphic materials, but she also produced a range of pottery items, which is why she’s featured here.

I discussed Attwell’s career in my recent book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century. She was born in the East End of London and attended several art schools before launching into her commercial career. She started out supplying work to magazines and, because this proved very popular, was soon contributing plates for children’s books such as The Water Babies and Peter Pan, as well as designing postcards.

Attwell was a rapid and prolific worker and quickly became a household name. She honed her ‘brand’ further still when she devised the toy-like characters called ‘Boo-Boos.’ These were round little pixies in green, with pointed caps, antennae and ears. The Boo-Boos first appeared in story books, but Attwell went on to produce a range of themed products- pottery figurines, wall hangings and plaques, night lights, jigsaws, bed linen, dolls , biscuit tins, money boxes and such like.

Attwell was much influenced at the start of her career by the work of her close friend, Hilda Cowham, another fairy artist. Between 1924 and 1935, both women were both employed by Shelley Potteries, Stoke on Trent, who were producers of Art Deco style fine china. They provided the company with images and designs for nursery ware. The standing of these two artists is attested by these commissions, because previously potteries had relied solely upon their own in-house artists for designs. 

The cute and cuddly babies, little girls and pixies that Attwell churned out are not to my taste, but they are a significant example of mid-twentieth century perceptions of Faery, alongside the flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and the sometimes more sinister designs of Arthur Rackham. Whether we like them or not, and whether we regard them as great art, it can’t be denied that they shaped contemporary attitudes to fairies and made a significant contribution to the process in which our perceptions of our Good Neighbours shifted away from a dangerous and independent presence to a far more saccharine and approachable image.

A cup from the Attwell range for Shelley

As I’ve argued before, fairy art has been very influential upon us in the way we visualise every aspect of fairyland. See too my posting on the Wedgwood designs of Daisy Makeig-Jones and the details of my 2020 book, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.

What’s that smell?

Brian Froud, ‘The Bully Bogey,’ from Good Faeries, Bad Faeries

As I have described previously, both on this blog and in detail in my 2020 book, Faery, there is quite a lot of evidence for the fact that our Good Neighbours have a distinctive smell. I’ve come across a little more evidence on this, which is well worth considering.

In 1650, at Dunoon on the island of Bute, a woman called Finwell Hyndman was accused of witchcraft. She was said to disappear for twenty four hours every three months and, when she returned, she was crazed and weary and had “such a wyld smell that none could come neir hir.” She couldn’t explain her absences to the community, which made it pretty clear to everyone that she had been ‘away with the fairies.’

Perhaps the people of Kingarth parish were correct about Finwell. The smell that was so noticeable and inexplicable might have been a clear sign of Hyndman’s contact with the faeries. That would unquestionably have been the interpretation placed on matters on the Isle of Man, where the smell of fairies was a well-known phenomenon, and was said to be sour and strong.

For instance, a certain Mrs C., living in Arbory parish in the south of Man, one day in December 1891 went to the stream near her cottage for water. There was, she said, a terrible stench “between a burnt rag and a stink” she said, and so “thick” on the bank that she could scarcely breathe. This was the smell of fairies, who had obviously only recently departed. A girl on the island also smelled them once- and then lost her sense of smell- although this could conceivably have been a punishment for her involuntary exclamation of “What a stink!” which would naturally have offended the tetchy faes.

It shouldn’t necessarily surprise us to learn that the faes, as a separate race or species from us, should have their own odour that is unique to them and enables us to detect their presence. Many people seem to find the scent overpowering or unpleasant, but such things can be a matter of individual preference and physiology, of course. It works the other way round too: in the relevant section on my book Faery I quote from a Manx story in which a hidden human is discovered by the faeries because of his smell. In addition, as I described in my previous posting, it is well established in magical texts that fairies should be attracted by burning incense and by the person working the spell being scrupulously clean and using clean clothes and table cloths, towels and the like. In this context, it may be worth adding that effective ways of driving fairies off, or holding them at bay, include burning rags or old shoes- the stench created is offensive to the fays’ sensitive noses (which makes you wonder if they really smell like burnt rags themselves, as Mrs C on Man alleged).

Froud, ‘The Bigot Bogey,’ from Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, 1998

Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

For Christmas I received this collection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Split into two sections- one on fairies, one on cats (!)- it complements her book, Kingdoms of Elfin, which I have reviewed before.

As a fan of both cats and elves, the book is highly recommended. It’s a pleasant read- and a thought provoking one too. There’s a general introduction to Warner’s views on the inhabitants of Faery, followed by her unusual little tales. Her opinions on fairy-kind as a whole are well worth noting.

In many respect, Warner’s elfins are very similar to those we know. For example, they frequent meadows where they “dance mushrooms into rings” and the island of Britain is divided up into kingdoms ruled over by fairy queens, such as Elfame. Warner’s belief was that fairies are, eventually, mortal. They can die of old age and they can die, too, by misadventure- for example, by drowning, poisoning or hanging.

Warner’s elfins have a very low estimation of humankind. We are noisy, rude, dirty and, worst of all, dim. Her fae are smaller than humans, winged and able to ‘put on’ invisibility. As a result, she observed that:

“It is sometimes said that we have but our own obtuseness to blame for not seeing fairies more often than we do; but this is to attach too much importance to our idiosyncrasies, even to such a well-established, long-standing idiosyncrasy as obtuseness; for if we fail to see the fairies, it is not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to allow themselves to be seen by us.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

All in all, Warner’s elves don’t reckon much to us human beings. In her story ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,’ it is remarked that “Mortals are not logical animals.” The courtier who makes this observation expands upon his experience a little later, explaining the essential difference between human and fairy kind (the possession of consciences): “We [that is, the fae] have no need of them. We have reason. But they are part of the mortal apparatus, as tails are to cats…” In the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,’ we are told a little more about Elfin morality. They are “untrammeled by that petted plague of mortals, conscience, [so] they never reproached or regretted, entered into explanations or lied.” Faery is a world of guilt-free Enlightenment, it would seem. In the same story, Warner has a nice little joke at human gullibility: of fairy princess Lief, she remarks sardonically that:

“If she had believed in witches she would have believed he was under a spell; but Caithness was full of witches- mortals all, derided by rational Elfins.”

The fairy view of people is summarised by Warner in these terms:

“It is a sad fact, but undeniable: the Kingdom of Elfin has a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized. It is only the fairies with a taste for low company, like Puck and the Brownies… that make a practice of familiarity. And it is to be observed that they, for choice, frequent the simple and rustic part of mankind and avoid professors and students of folklore…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

As she notes, those humans who go out consciously looking for traces of the faeries tend to be disappointed- or are the victims of fairy vindictiveness. Warner confronts the fact that, when they do have contact with us, it is frequently an unpleasant experience for the mortals. They may give us a nasty fright, or:

“Often they go further, causing them to fall into languishing sicknesses, harrying them with ignominious accidents and even pursuing them unto death. They commonly employ one or two methods: blasting or shooting with an elf-bolt…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

According to Warner, three groups, nevertheless, have a good chance of meeting faeries on happier terms. These are country women with new born babies, young children and handsome men. Mothers are taken because “the fairies think that the plodding and bovine nature of human kind is peculiarly well adapted to provide reliable old-fashioned nurses for fairy babes.”

Children are abducted either because they are wanted as a tithe for the devil (according to one theory) or because they enjoy the company of children and taking care of them (which she thinks more likely). This sits uncomfortably with a entirely typical faery episode in ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’ in which local children are punished for trespassing on the queen’s land. Most suffer pinchings, scratching and hair pullings, but some of the fairies get rather carried away in their duties- “driving the marauders into wasps’ nests, jerking them off boughs into nettlebeds, alluring them to toadstools or gay wreaths of deadly nightshade.” The resultant death toll is quite high.

As for men, fairy women take them as husbands. Warner notes, though, that the reverse is seldom the case. Although fairy men will seduce human women, “no earthly woman’s charms have been powerful enough to bind a fairy to her in honorable matrimony.” In large measure, she ascribes this to the fairy temperament:

“Their amorousness is proverbial and no doubt the fairies who married mortal husbands were induced to this rash step by the violence of their passions, coupled with a romantic and high-flown notion that there is something very fine about defying convention. Once married, however, they make admirable wives.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

On the whole, though, fairies are an unromantic lot and are incapable of falling heavily for another: “Elfins find such love burdensome and mistrust it.” If only humans could be as calm and rational… The other remark to make upon Warner’s Elfins is their diversity. The author was a lesbian with a life-long partner and in the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo’ she imagined a gay husband and his wife, neither of them prepared to conform to the stereo-types expected of them.

Raphael, Mary F., A Wood Nymph; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

The last story in the Cats and Elfins collection is ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain.’ In many ways it is my favourite, although it is strictly not about Elfins but about nymphs. In short, it concerns a Mr Mulready, a draper in Wells in Somerset. He is a highly respectable widower who sings in the Baptist chapel choir. One evening the choir has been practicing the madrigal by Wilbye that provides the story’s title. The words of the verse stick in Mulready’s mind:

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

For if thou follow her, she’ll fly from thee,

But if thou fly from her, she’ll follow thee.”

Then, “All of a sudden, Mr Mulready found himself wondering about nymphs, and wondering, too, in a very serious and pertinacious way. He had never, to his knowledge, given a though to these strange beings before and yet it now seemed to him that he had an idea of them both clear and pleasant- as though perhaps in childhood he had been taken to see one. He wished to see a nymph again… What he felt was more than a whim: it was an earnest desire, a mental craving…”

The next day he realises that he has a nymph working in his shop, a pale young girl called Edna Cave. He asks to come out for a bicycle ride the next evening and they agree to cycle to Merley Wood, the other side of Glastonbury (there is a real Merley Wood, but it’s near Wimbourne in Dorset- definitely not an evening’s ride from Wells). Mulready knows the wood- and has always been a little nervous of its atmosphere, but as he tells himself: “When one has a nymph vouchsafed one for a whole evening, one does not boggle over details. He was extremely happy and excited at the thought of such a shy and rare being becoming his companion.”

They ride to the wood on a beautiful summer’s evening. Edna Cave is exactly the company the older man had hoped for : “He had already a general idea of how a nymph should behave: she would be rather quiet and take a great interest in flowers.” This is exactly what Edna does. They sit happily together under blackthorn blossom on the edge of the wood, saying little, but very content, until it is late and starting to get quite dark. Mr Mulready encourages them to leave and they are just walking back to their bikes when Edna turns around and walks back towards the blackthorn:

“She put out her hands. He thought she was going to break off a spray… And then, in a moment, she disappeared.”

Edna vanishes, leaving Mulready stunned and panicked. There is no trace of her at all- and he has to face returning to Wells with this shattering news. This wonderful mystery is exactly what I sought to celebrate in my book Nymphology published last year; it is, as well, a fine end to the Elfin section of Warner’s collection.